Olympic Urban Legends Revealed #8

This is the eighth in a series of examinations of legends related to the Olympics and whether they are true or false.

Let’s begin!

OLYMPIC LEGEND: Through strange political circumstances, the very first Chinese delegation to the Summer Olympics was a single athlete.

STATUS: True

In 1932, China entered its first delegation to the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, USA.

Aside from a few officials, the delegation consisted entirely of ONE person, sprinter Liu Changchun!

How did a country of 400 million people come to send only ONE athlete to the Olympics?

The answer lies within an event from the preceding year. The “Mukden Incident” is the term most commonly used to refer to the events of September 18, 1931, when a section of a Japanese railroad within Manchuria was dynamited. Whether they were the ones who specifically planted the dynamite or not, Japan used this as a pretext for an attack on the area, leading to them taking over Manchuria and parts of Mongolia and labeling this “new” country Manchukuo, a supposedly new country, but really a puppet nation under the control of Japan.

Now the Kuomintang (the ruling party) of the Republic of China did not wish to go to war with Japan at this point in time, so they allowed Manchukuo to exist, although they certainly did not acknowledge the rights of the land to be considered its own nation. Neither did the League of Nations, although a few countries here and there did, most notably Japan’s future Axis ally, Germany.

In any event, in 1932, Japan wanted to further cement Manchukuo’s place in the world, so they had the notion of sending an Olympic delegation from Manchukuo. Their choices were sprinter Liu Changchun and long distance runner Yu Hsi-Wei. Changchun was the more notable of the two athletes, so he basically spoke for them both when he declared that he would not represent Manchukuo at the Olympics. He WOULD go to the Olympics, but it would be as a member of the Republic of China!

The only problem was, with all the political turmoil, the Kuomintang did not feel as though they could specifically finance the journey of these two athletes, so they had to find funds on their own to finance their journey to Los Angeles. This was a major problem, as the distance was great and there was not much time to put together the funds.

Ultimately, General Zhang Xueliang (the warlord of Manchuria, who had to pull his troops back when Japan took control of the country) gave Changchun a gift of 8,000 silver dollars.

So Changchun made it to Los Angeles as the sole member of the Republic of China’s Olympic team.

He raced in the 100 meter and the 200 meter races, failing to make it past the preliminaries in either one.

He returned to the Olympics in 1936, though, as a member of a much larger delegation, nearly 80 athletes!

Changchun would go on to life a long life and be an important figure in Chinese athletics, although he passed away in 1983, one year before China won its first Gold Medal (they won a bunch at the 1984 Summer Olympics).

OLYMPIC LEGEND: The current distance for the Olympic marathon was based on where Queen Alexandra was sitting at the 1908 Summer Olympics.

STATUS: Effectively True

While over the years it has been passed in popularity by sports like gymnastics and basketball, the marathon used to be one of the marquee events of the Summer Olympics. Its past popularity gave rise to a tradition that is still done at the Summer Olympics to this day, which is to have the marathon as the last event of the games, with the finishing point of the marathon being in the main stadium for that year’s games. Sometimes the finish is even worked into the closing ceremonies! This tradition is what appears to have led (indirectly) to the current distance of the Olympic marathon, with a little help from the British Royal Family, as well.

The marathon race gets its name from the legend of the Greek messenger, Pheidippides, who, in 490 BC, ran from the city of Marathon all the way to Athens to deliver the message that the Greeks were victorious against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. Whether it happened or not, the legend was cemented into popular folklore, especially in the late 19th Century when the famed poet Robert Browning wrote a poem about the journey (which ended with Pheidippides collapsing dead after delivering his message). Due to Mount Penteli standing between the two cities, there are two routes from Marathon to Athens, a shorter one with a very difficult climb that goes to the north of the mountain and a longer one that is, however, on flat land to the south of the mountain. The second route is typically what most folks presume that Pheidippides used on his journey, and that distance is roughly 26 miles.

So from the beginning of the Modern Olympics in 1896, 26 miles was the basic length of the marathon. A specific length, however, was not determined, mostly because the main object of the race is to force everyone to run a really long distance, and whether you run 25 miles, 25 and 1/2 miles or 26 miles, the end result is that you ran a really long distance, and so long as everyone is running the same distance, the goal of the race is achieved.

In fact, from the first Modern Olympics through 1920, a span of seven Olympics, a total of SIX different distances were used in the marathon! In 1896 and 1904, the distance was 24.85 miles, in 1900 25.02 miles, in 1906 26.01 miles, 1908 26.22 miles, 1912 24.98 miles and in 1920, 26.56 miles.

In 1921, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) decided to settle on an official distance for the marathon, and ever since then, the 1908 distance of 26.22 miles (or more specifically, 26 miles and 385 yards) has been the official distance for the marathon in all competitions, including the Summer Olympics.

But why 26 miles and 385 yards?

It all began when planning began for the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, England. The planning had to be done on very short notice, as Rome backed out of hosting the 1908 Games in 1906. A giant stadium, dubbed The Great Stadium, was built in Shepherd’s Bush in London for the Games. It was here that the marathon would end. A novel idea for the start of the race was determined – the race would begin at Windsor Castle in Berkshire County, England. Plans for the race route were announced in 1907. The race would run roughly 25 miles long. However, the planning committee encountered protests about the original route, especially because of tram-lines on the journey. So the plans were slightly altered and with the changes, the race length was extended. It ultimately ended up at 26 miles, plus a lap within The Great Stadium itself (the lap being roughly 700 yards), with the finish line being directly in front of the Royal Box, where Queen Alexandra herself would be sitting.

That was the plan, but due to some issues with the entrance to the stadium (the original entrance turned out not to be accessible to the track within the stadium), things had to change once again. An alternate route was designed that managed to keep the outer route still 26 miles. However, one thing that “had” to remain a constant was that the race had to end in front of the Royal Box. This was impossible under the current route, so rather than doing a full lap within the Stadium, the racers would run the other direction and once again end up in front of the Royal Box. This distance worked out to 385 yards.

The 1908 Olympic marathon turned out to be one of the most famous marathons ever. The weather was nearly 80 degrees, so the racers were running in some pretty rough conditions. The conditions likely affected the leader of the race, Italian Dorando Pietri, who was in bad shape when he entered the Stadium well ahead of his closest competitor. However, while he was in the lead, he could barely walk. He staggered and fell numerous times as he grew so close to the finish line. Once or twice he even began to start running the wrong direction, that’s how dazed he was! Ultimately, with the other runners starting to come close and with Pietri so tantalizingly close to the end, Olympic officials actually decided to PROP HIM UP across the finish line!

Naturally, the United States protested this when their representative, John Hayes, crossed the finishing line next, and their protest was upheld. Pietri was disqualified and Hayes was the Gold Medalist.

As you might imagine, this whole sequence was quite a dramatic scene – and it all happened directly in front of the Queen of England! Queen Alexandra was so moved by Pietri’s situation, particularly the fact that he had not asked for assistance, that the next day she personally awarded him a special silver-gilt cup.

Both Pietri and Hayes became professional runners after the Olympics, and had many re-matchs. And naturally, the re-matchs had to be the same length as their famous race. Marathon fever hit England, and the next year the famous Polytechnic Marathon began in London. That race, naturally, ALSO used the same distance as the previous year’s Olympic Marathon in London. So from a strict “fame” standpoint, the distance of 26 miles, 385 yards had its support well established. And while the IAAF never expressly said why they chose 26 miles, 385 yards as the official distance, it cannot be a coincidence that they chose the exact length of the most famous marathon in Olympic history (at that point, at least) and that length was because of need for the race to end in front of the Queen of England. And over 100 years later, her seating arrangements still dictate the distance of marathons the world over!

Ian at the neat site, Sporting Landmarks, has an extensive and interesting look at the 1908 marathon here.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

2 Responses to “Olympic Urban Legends Revealed #8”

  1. Steven Marsh on June 1st, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    OLYMPIC LEGEND: Eric Liddell did not learn that his planned race would be on a Sunday until he reached Paris.

    STATUS: True

    . . .

    Great story, and it’s based largely on fact, but a significant aspect of it was fabricated. For one, Liddell knew about the race schedule at least four months in advance of the Games.

    But at least the legend is still true, right?

  2. Brian Cronin on June 1st, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Ha!

    Thanks, Steve, I’ll fix that.

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